October 23, 2022
Sirach 35:12-17 Psalm 84:1-6 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14
Our first reading today was from Ecclesiasticus. We have been reading from this book in Morning Prayer as well this past week. When we began it was confusing for some. Ecclesiastes is found in the Old Testament, but Ecclesiasticus is found in the Apocrypha. Many people, Episcopalians included, find it confusing when we read from the Apocrypha because these books are not included in many bibles. And, if you are unfamiliar with the Apocrypha and then hear the name of the book of Ecclesiasticus, you very well may think we are referencing the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Add to this the fact that in some bibles, Ecclesiasticus, has another name, Sirach, and there is the cause for much confusion.
So, before I talk about the reading itself, I decided it might be helpful for some if I first spoke about the Apocrypha and why it is in some bibles and not others.
For the first several hundred years of Christianity the bible did not exist as we know it today. Various religious books were being read in some churches but not others. Over time church councils worked out which books should be included and which should not. The Roman Church did this in the year 382; but this was not the end of the bible’s development. When the Orthodox Church split from the Western church, it developed a bible that was different from the Catholic Bible. The Protestant Reformation in the 1500s created yet another list of sacred texts for inclusion in its bible.
The Apocrypha was removed from what is now referred to as the Protestant Bible. The Anglican Church came late to the Protestant Reformation and the Apocrypha has remained in our bible. It does not, however, enjoy the same status of the Old and New Testaments. Is it sacred text or helpful religious instructions? The Episcopal Church is Protestant, but it does include the books of the Apocrypha in its Daily Office readings and allows for it to be used for some Sunday readings, such as today.
Our use of this reading today is an important reminder that although we believe the bible to contain all things necessary for our salvation, it was not handed down from God on stone tablets. Men, the only ones included on the church councils, determined what was included and what was not – and they were not in full agreement. Plus, very few people read from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. So, the bible we read is actually someone’s interpretation of the scriptures, for all translations are influenced by the translator’s theology.
There are more translations of the bible than I can count and scholars continue to revise these translations – sometimes these revisions have been in response to the discovery of ancient scrolls and codex’s that are discovered which are different for those discovered earlier. There is not a single definitive text that has been used to translate the bibles available to us today. So, if you are asked if you believe what is written in the bible, the question, “which bible?” is a legitimate question. Thus, we often need to wrestle with a passage in order to discern God’s message to us.
Our reading from Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, is just such a passage. “Give to the Most High as he has given you, and as generously as you can afford.” This verse is straight forward. The next verse, however, is not. “For the Lord is the one who repays, and he will repay you sevenfold.” This supports the prosperity gospel, the belief that God wants us to prosper and heaps blessings upon those who are faithful. It is not supported by all the examples of suffering we have witnessed by people of faith. It is not easily understood by people of faith who are swindled, lose their jobs, or whose health is failing.
I would like to skip over this verse because I know too many people who suffer. I don’t believe they suffer because they lack faith or because they are not generous. Many, many people suffer because of circumstances that are beyond their control. Good people suffer from adversities while others who are selfish often prosper.
What then, can I make of this and other verses like it? These verses represent an ancient belief that God rewards the good and punishes the bad. I think of this as bad theology that some people, even today, have promoted. As this passage from Sirach continues, there is another message about giving which does offer some hope for people who are in need. “Do not offer [God] a bride, for he will not accept it and do not rely on dishonest sacrifice.” Taken with the first verse, this speaks to the nature of giving that God desires of us. Give freely (not in hopes of getting something in return) and give generously.
The hope in this passage is more clear in the verse that says, God “will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged,” and “not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.” God will not overlook and ignore the very people whose needs are often overlooked. The suggestion that someone will listen to their complaints, their concerns, is significant. The fact that God listens is all the more important. Sometimes what we need most is for someone to listen, someone to care, and here it is God who is listening.
The gospel reading today also speaks of the righteous and the sinners, of a man who is a Pharisee, a devout religious man, and a tax collector who is despised by most people. The Pharisee gives thanks for what he has, and for who he is. The tax collector beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says it is the tax collector who is “justified.” “For,” Jesus says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This notion that ALL who exalt themselves will be humbled and all that are humbled will be exalted is clearly not a promise for this life. I have seen examples of this taking place, but I’ve seen more cases of injustices than I care to remember. Elsewhere in the scriptures Jesus says that true riches are “not of this world.” The true riches he speaks of are found in our relationships – with God and with one another.
I have talked with several people who have very little to their name. Some of these people are more thankful for what they do have, than I am for what I have. It always gives me pause to reflect. It is humbling to realize just how much I may be like the Pharisee. This is when I wish the prosperity gospel were true and that those who have been faithful with little would be given more. Then again, people with very little who are thankful for what they do have, project a sense of peace in their soul that puts many of us to shame. They help me realize that I am the sinner in need of redemption. I have been given more than enough and need to be more generous in my giving as an expression of my gratitude. Changing people like me gives hope to the poor.
Let us pray.
Loving God, giver of all good gifts, help us, we pray to see all that you have given us. Help us give with gratitude and generosity that we might be an instrument of your love. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.